Basic Income, Workfare and affirmations of productivity

For about twenty-four hours, some advocates of a Basic Income responded to the Cypriot government’s announcement of a guaranteed minimum income with a good deal of enthusiasm.

Until various people, including Mark Gawne, pointed out the (not really very fine) detail.

The single but absolutely necessary precondition is that they don’t refuse to accept offers for employment and to participate in the policies of continuous employment that are determined by the state.

Proposals for a Basic Income have been made by various people over the years, perhaps most famously and recently by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire.

When tracking the history of calls for a ‘new social contract’ for Contract & Contagion, the first instance of this I came across was in the mid-1940s, written by a Tory: Lady Rhys Williams in the UK.

Her report, Something To Look Forward To, included a call for (her phrase) a basic income. It’s the earliest version of that I’ve seen. In the footnote, I added:

The [basic income proposal] was revived in the late 1970s [during the rise of Thatcherism, that is] by her son, the Conservative MP Brandon Rhys Williams (Proposals for a Basic Income Guarantee, Evidence Submitted to the Treasury and Civil Service Committee).

I’ll come back to this, but I should say that I’ve never been a supporter of the campaign for a Basic Income. The excerpt below is from “Precari-Us?,” and it seems to me not only pertinent on a day when — once again, I think — there is far too much confusion about a Basic Income, but also when the Australian Liberal-National Opposition announced that, under their impending government, asylum seekers would be required to work-for-the-dole, and the ALP government’s Minister responded that this sounded like ‘a good idea’ – which is perhaps not surprising given that Party’s links with Ingeus, the global workfare agency.

In any case, this is what I wrote in 2005, and I’ll repeat it because it contains the reasons why I don’t support the campaign for a basic income:

a ‘basic income’ has already been shown, in the places it exists such as Australia, to be contingent upon and constitutive of intermittent engagements with waged work, if not forced labour, as in work-for-the-dole schemes. The latter policy was applied to unemployed indigenous people before it became a recent measure against the unemployed generally. Basic incomes do not suspend the injunction to work often in low paid, casual or informal jobs; they are deliberately confined to levels which provide for a bare life but not for a livelihood.

I’ve had many arguments with friends and comrades over this. Often, they keep repeating the mantra, as if those who don’t agree with them simply don’t understand. But there’s a reason why proposals for a Basic Income are received better in some radical movements than others, and it has nothing to do with ‘false consciousness’ and everything to do with the fact that some movements have a far longer history and experience of welfare systems than does Italy and (to be blunt) those countries in which welfare systems were de facto organized entirely through the family.

In contexts where there isn’t a history of welfare organized outside a relation to work history and through the family, quite likely it would constitute a step forward. It is certainly a step up from the demand for “wages for housework,” maybe. But this does not mean it is a global campaign for movements to repeat, or that outside a small group of countries it makes any sense to raise it.

When challenged about the ways in which welfare schemes — including those of a basic income — are used to spur (rather than dampen) competition in various and segmented labour markets, advocates of a Basic Income tended to repeat an abstract adherence to the concept of the ‘transitional demand.’ That is to say, they suggest that capitalism is not capable of delivering on the demand for a Basic Income without, well, some kind of revolution — or, at the very least, without bringing into being the revolutionary subject that propels this forward.

The problem with these Leninist assumptions is that they completely reverse the more important insight of theories of class composition, and the history of the dynamics of reform, not least in welfare.

And, more importantly, there is no evidence for the suggestion that persuading someone to support something will make them think about it more critically when (in some fictive other or future time) they might be required to do so.

Or, as someone else remarked in another context (though I can’t find the ref now, but it’s brilliantly concise): you can’t persuade someone who believes the world is flat that it’s really square, because then (unless you really do believe the earth is square) you are obliged to spend much of your time persuading them that it’s actually round.

Which is what the Basic Income Network has had to do. Without of course shaking their faith in a basic income or, for that matter, specifying what the decisive question is, which is to say: welfare schemes are only of interest to capitalists to the extent that they command work to be done, preferably cheaply, and even better if they don’t have to pay a wage.

When proposals for a Basic Income circulated in the Tory Party in UK in the 1940s and subsequently in the late 70s, they were a means to head off the more radical trajectories of the labour movements at the time. And, it should also be noted that Lady Rhys Williams also mentioned how good it might be, because it would keep women in the home — bringing down the costs of social reproduction and conflict. Presumably. Though the latter possibly implied a hope that social conflict over the social distribution of wealth could and should be displaced and confined to the private space of the household.

The important question to be asked is not whether a Revolutionary Subject can be gathered around something like a demand for a Basic Income, but what would it take — when and if a movement is presented with something like a basic income — for it to be something other than like the workfare scheme proposed in Cyprus? What would it take for welfare schemes — whether they’re under the brand-name of Basic Income or not — to not involve conditions?

Anti-Workfare protests in the UK
Anti-Workfare protests in the UK

And the answer to this isn’t that we should all agree about a Basic Income (or indeed any other particular policy or demand). Policies will be better to the extent that they are required to respond to movements that cannot be divided along nationalist, gendered or racial lines. Policies will be worse for some, and eventually for everyone, if parts of the movement can be ‘bought off,’ as it were. This doesn’t entail forming a subject, or a multitude that can or should speak in one voice on policy, precisely because policy (and politicians whose first responsibility is managing some entity euphemistically called ‘the economy’) will always follow and try and channel the irreducible conflicts of politics.

Policy wonks, of course, can propose whatever they please, and people can seek to address policy wonks as much as they like. But the questions of politics and political movements are required to be far less affirming, not least of productivity when that means, in this system, exploitation.

The question that hovers uncomfortably around Basic Income proposals is the extent to which they can distance themselves from injunctions to productivity. Because so far they’ve been outside any serious discussion of, and without much critical regard for, the specifically changing forms of contractual obligation that, in welfare systems in particular, are increasingly governed by something closer to indentured labour than waged work.

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